J. K. Rowling, we are women, indeed!

Travesti Socialista, columnist of Esquerda Online

LEIA EM PORTUGUÊS J. K. Rowing, nós somos mulheres, sim!

The author of the ‘Harry Potter’ book series, Joanne K. Rowling, wrote a text on her blog [1] trying to justify a series of comments that disauthorize the gender identity of trans people, particularly women. The text reveals that Joanne is not only opposed to us being considered women from a social and legal point of view, but also to a series of fundamental rights that we have conquered with much struggle. Ultimately, what she wants is for us trans people to give up our rights. Let’s get to her arguments.

Before starting the debate, I want to make it clear that I am critical of the misogynistic slurs and threats received by the author. I am absolutely against all kinds of violence, including verbal violence. This kind of behavior is reprehensible and unacceptable in any kind of debate, however absurd the arguments being used.

To be a woman is not to menstruate nor having uterus or vagina

Let’s start with J. K. Rowling sarcastic tweet:

“‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”[2]

I must remind Rowling that not all women menstruate – and I’m not only talking about trans people. This sarcastic comment ends up disauthorizing the gender identity of cis women who are in menopause, who use contraceptives or who, due to any biological condition, do not menstruate. Well, at least with that statement, trans men who have hormone theraphy would be recognized as men!

Jokes aside, no matter what biological trait Rowling wants to use to define what it means to be a woman, she will inevitably end up excluding part of women, including cis women. But it is not biological characteristics that define what it is to be a woman. Gender, as Simone de Beauvoir explained, is social.

If Joanne quotes Beauvoir in her text, why doesn’t she listen to her?

Personal accounts that are not relevant to the debate

As is very common in this kind of debate, J. K. Rowling gives personal accounts of how she viewed her gender and makes assumptions about what it would be like if she had had access to the gender identity debate in her teens. I will not answer such accounts because, first, they are personal and, second, they are irrelevant. After all, it is not possible to defend the withdrawal of rights conquered by trans people based on the problems that cis people faced throughout their lives in relation to their own gender.

We are women victims of sexist violence

Joanne Rowling’s text reveals, for the first time, her past as a victim of sexual violence, when she was about 20 years old. I sympathize with the author and sincerely wish that her ex-husband answer in court for the crimes he committed. However, I must say, obviously, that we trans women have nothing to do with such a crime and we cannot pay the price for it.

Joanne says she recognizes that trans women are also victims of violence. What she does not seem to recognize is that we are victims of sexist violence. If she recognized this fact, she would have to agree that we are women or that, at the very least, we also need spaces that minimally protect us from this violence as much as women do.

There is an evident contradiction in society: while society refuses to recognize that we trans women are women, it treats us with the same violence that women are commonly victims of. A clear example of this contradiction was the arrest of the travesti Indianare Siqueira for being shirtless with her “breasts sticking out” [3] – just like any woman would be. In court, Indianare’s defense argued that if the court sentenced her, it would be recognizing that her documents were wrong, since she was legally a man.

Someone needs to remind Rowling that trans women are also victims of sexual violence. In a survey of 498 trans people by Fundación Huésped in Argentina [4], about 80% of the 452 trans women (travestis and transsexual women) reported that they had already been detained by the police. Among these, 62% reported having suffered psychological violence, 48%, physical violence and 43%, sexual abuse by security officers.

In short, about 34% of trans women in this survey had already been arrested and had been victims of sexual violence, that is, sexist violence by the police. The study, unfortunately, does not include other forms of sexual violence commonly reported by trans women. One form is violence by other inmates in male prisons. That is why, for example, it was determined, in Brazil, the right of transsexual women (and also transsexual men) to serve their sentence in female detentions, as well as that of travestis to remain in a separate cell [5]. This differentiation between transsexual women and travestis was contested in a lawsuit, where the judge determined a travesti‘s right to remain in the women’s wing [6].

This right (for us to remain in women’s spaces) is not only for the recognition of our identity, but also a matter of security. For example, reports of sexual harassment suffered by trans women when we are forced to go to the men’s toilet are not uncommon. After all, that’s what would happen to any woman who used the men’s toilet.

That is why we, trans women, insist on saying to society: if you violent us as women, at least have the decency to recognize that we are women.

We are not criminals

Although this is not her intention, Rowling’s arguments are in line with the stereotype that we travestis are unbalanced people, stalls, criminals. This stereotype has a reason to exist. Once transgender people are violented and expelled from their homes, schools and are hardly able to enter the labor market, it is very common for travestis to end up using sex work to sustain themselves. It happens the same with many black cis women.

In the same survey conducted by Fundación Huésped, for example, 61% of trans women reported that they exercised sex work and 23% reported that they had already exercised this kind of work. Once it is not legally recognized, that is a highly criminalized activity. Isn’t it curious, Rowling, that most trans women are pushed by society into prostitution the same way as many cis women are? Isn’t it curious that the same society that pushes us into this activity ends up criminalizing those who exercise it?

Because of this stereotype, people in general – and cis women in particular – are led to believe that it is unsafe to share the same space with us. The women’s toilet, for example. J. K. Rowling relies on this insecurity to sustain that trans activism is unsafe for women. For example, in a moment, Rowling says that we trans people are not a threat:

“I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection.”

It is curious that, at the same time that she says, as an empty gesture, that we need protection, she is opposed to all the policies that we have conquered with a lot of struggle, and that exist for our protection. At the same time, elsewhere in the text, she states that we are no longer harmless, on the contrary, we pose a threat to cis women:

“Huge numbers of women are justifiably terrified by the trans activists; I know this because so many have got in touch with me to tell their stories. They’re afraid of doxxing [7], of losing their jobs or their livelihoods, and of violence.”

But why are these women afraid? Were they afraid of losing their jobs because they were transphobic? Now, what if a person loses their job because they were racist or prejudiced against other minority groups? Isn’t it fair when that happens? And why would they be afraid of suffering violence? Wasn’t it Rowling herself who said that most of us trans people are not a threat? So why is she saying the opposite here?

The reason for that is simple. If she doesn’t rely on the common sense that we trans people are violent, she wouldn’t be able to oppose the policies that serve to protect us from violence because they all recognize our gender, which is social.

I sympathize with cis women who fear losing their jobs, but I must remind Rowling that we trans people are much more afraid of losing ours, and with far greater reason! Especially because, for many of us, losing our job often means having no alternative but to resort to prostitution. Many trans women are terrified by the idea of being forced to make a living from sex work, like Gabriela Monelli, who committed suicide in 2013 for just that reason

Is identifying oneself as a women too easy?

A constant complaint from Rowling throughout the text is that it is supposedly ‘too easy’ for a trans woman to currently identify herself as a woman.

I will take the policy that exists here in Brazil as a reference. According to the 2018 STF (Federal Supreme Court) decision [8], transgender people can change their name and gender in the civil registry by self-declaration directly at the registry office. For that, the person must take a series of documents and sign a term that says that the change cannot be reversed, except by judicial decision.

  1. K. Rowling says that the policy of self-declaration of gender identity would allow men to easily identify themselves as women. It does not seem to be the case. I have not heard of any case of a man who used this STF decision for malicious purposes. If one of them did, he would be required to carry documents that say he is a woman for the rest of his life, unless he was willing to go to court to reverse that decision. In this case, he would have to explain himself to the judge.

Doesn’t it seem terrible that a man would have to explain to the judge that he really is a man? Yes, that is terrible. Fortunately, transgender people in Brazil no longer have to go through this. Even so, for many travestis in Brazil, the process of changing their names and sex in the civil registry is still very difficult.

I have already reported, for example, that most of them are sex workers. Other very common problems are illiteracy and lack of access to the Internet. Now, to change the name and sex in the civil registry, it is necessary to withdraw some documents over the Internet that concern our criminal record and ongoing legal proceedings. This means that, to make this change, we need to have our ‘clean record’.

However, as I said, most travestis have a pass through the police. They are criminalized for being prostitutes, for using drugs, for defending themselves against violence (the police never believes that the travesti is the victim), for the crimes of their companions, etc. And look, once they pass through the police, they automatically lose the right to have their identity recognized! Isn’t it absurd?

Even more absurd than that is that most of them need help from a social assistant to be able to change their record, even when they do not have a criminal record or lawsuits against them.

But for J. K. Rowling, that is not enough. She argues that we have to go through a long legal process if we want to have our identities recognized. If, for me, who have a postgraduate degree, the idea of having to go through a legal process is scary, imagine for an illiterate travesti who often suffers violence from society and the police and who never had access to formal employment with a formal contract.

Why does Rowling want to make their lives more difficult than they already are?

Is being against our rights solidarity?

On the one hand, Rowling claims to sympathize with the violence of which we trans women are victims:

“Like every other domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor I know, I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.”

On the other hand, Rowling is opposed to all public policies that were conquered by decades of struggle by trans people, for the simple fact that they all start with the social and legal recognition of our gender identity.

It would be very strange if Rowling, for example, said that she sympathized with the racism of which black people are victims and, at the same time, defended the apartheid laws. Or if he said that he sympathized with the prejudice and difficulty experienced by people with disabilities, but she opposed accessibility laws and policies. In the same way, I see the ‘solidarity’ expressed by Joanne Rowling as a mere formality.

Rowling claims to be offended by being called TERF – I will explain the meaning of the term below.

“Immediately, activists who clearly believe themselves to be good, kind and progressive people swarmed back into my timeline, assuming a right to police my speech, accuse me of hatred, call me misogynistic slurs and, above all – as every woman involved in this debate will know – TERF.”

TERF is an acronym that stands for ‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist’. But what is offensive about that term, which was invented by a suffragette, a cis woman, Ethel Smyth [9]?

This adjective only says that the person in matter defends the exclusion of trans people. That is exactly what J. K. Rowling does in almost all of her text – except for the passages in which she formally says to simpathyze with trans people, almost as a relief of conscience.

The term TERF came about precisely because, at the time, most radical feminists were not in favor of excluding trans people. The defense made by some radical feminists to exclude trans women from feminist events and even Gay Pride Parades has created a lot of hostility within the early radical feminist movement and has even caused physical confrontations [10].

I am sure that racist people find it offensive when they are called racists and that those who are prejudiced against people with disabilities are also offended by being characterized as capacitists. Joanne Rowling’s claim to be ‘offended’ by being called ‘TERF’ does not generate any sympathy from me. It is bizarre that she explicitly defends the exclusion of trans people and, at the same time, criticizes that being said.

I have no sympathy for such an offense in the same way that, deep down, Rowling has no sympathy with the transphobia of which we are victims, since she is opposed to our most basic rights. If she finds it offensive that someone says she is trans-exclusionary, that has a very simple solution: it is enough for her to stop being… trans-exclusionary.



[1] https://www.jkrowling.com/opinions/j-k-rowling-writes-about-her-reasons-for-speaking-out-on-sex-and-gender-issues/ 

[2] https://twitter.com/jk_rowling/status/1269382518362509313 

[3] http://www.revistalatinoamericana-ciph.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/RLCIF-3-Entrevista-com-Indianara-Siqueira.pdf 

[4] https://www.huesped.org.ar/noticias/informe-situacion-trans/ 

[5] https://www.justica.gov.br/news/resolucao-define-novas-regras-para-acolhimento-da-comunidade-glbt-em-unidades-prisionais 

[6] https://www.nexojornal.com.br/expresso/2019/03/26/Onde-trans-e-travestis-devem-ficar-quando-s%C3%A3o-presas 

[7] ‘Doxxing’ is the practice of searching and publicizing personal information.

[8] http://www.stf.jus.br/portal/cms/verNoticiaDetalhe.asp?idConteudo=386930 

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/29/im-credited-with-having-coined-the-acronym-terf-heres-how-it-happened 

[10] See, for example, Robin Morgan’s account: http://transadvocate.com/that-time-terfs-beat-radfems-for-protecting-a-trans-woman-from-assault_n_14382.htm